“Among the Schoolchildren” Author William Butler Yeats (1865–1939) First Published 1927; collected in The Tower, 1928 Type of Poem Meditation The Poem William Butler Yeats Among School Children is written in eight eight-line stanzas that follow a precise rhyme scheme. Along with the straightforward title, stanza I establishes the immediate context of the action in deliberately prosaic language. The speaker is visiting a schoolroom, and a kind old nun, his guide for the day or perhaps the classroom teacher, is answering his matter-of-fact questions in a rapid, matter-of-fact way.
The tone and mood of the poem take a sharp turn in the couplet ending the first stanza, however, the speaker suddenly sees himself through the children eyes as they In momentary wonder stare upon/ A sixty-year-old smiling public man. The speaker is almost certainly Yeats himself; as a member of the Irish Senate, Yeats, just turned sixty, did in fact visit schools as a part of his official duties. Seeing himself through the children eyes inspires a reverie.
He thinks of a child, a girl, whom he knew in his own childhood or youth. The facts are not quite clear, for the reader is told of a childish day but also of youthful sympathy. Nevertheless, the young female is generally identified as Maud Gonne, with whom the poet first became acquainted and fell in love when she was in her late teens and he was in his twenties. The reverie ends, but his eyes light upon one of the children, who looks amazingly like Maud when she was that age: She stands before me as a living child.
Seeing her as she looked then reminds him of what she looks like now, after the passage of nearly forty years.
Her present image is of someone whom life has wasted and exhausted; she is Hollow of cheek as if she drank the wind and ate a mess of shadows for [her] meat. Thoughts of her then and now lead to thoughts of himself then and now. The years have not been kind in his case either, and, back in the present in the schoolroom, he decides that it is best to keep up a brave front and smile on all that smile. Yet he cannot shake the thought that human life appears to be a process of diminishment and gradual dispossession, if not outright defeat. He imagines what a mother—perhaps his own—would think, just having given birth, could she see that infant after he has lived through sixty or more winters. Would she, he wonders, think the result worth the pain of her labor and of all her coming anxieties over her helpless infant”‘”s welfare?
In the final three stanzas, the personal note that has pervaded the poem is dropped as the speaker explores in rapid order the breadth and scope of all human thought and endeavor — from Plato to Aristotle and Pythagoras, from nuns to mothers to youthful lovers — seeking some solace for the tragic unraveling of dreams and hopes that human life seems to be. In a sudden burst of anger, the speaker excoriates all those images that people set before their minds eyes to goad themselves and others into succeeding only at failing, and he tries instead to see human life as it is truly lived.
The vision that emerges is one in which neither devotion to others (motherhood) nor devotion to God (the nun) nor devotion to fulfilling selfhood (Maud Gonne) can alone be enough, for Labour is blossoming or dancing. It is an ongoing process, not any final product. Therefore, one cannot isolate the individual from the passing moment by trying to imagine that at any one instant there is some greater or lesser being there; like the chestnut tree, a human life is all one piece, so one should be wary of trying to know the dancer from the dance. Forms and Devices Yeats is a poetry rich in complex webs of both personal and public symbols and allusions, and Among School Children is no exception. An example of this complexity can be found by examining the source of something as apparently superficial as the rhyme scheme. Ottava rima was introduced into English prosody by the early nineteenth century poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, who used it to great comic effect in poems such as his satiric masterpiece, Don Juan (1819–1824).
The Yeats poem is hardly satiric and is comic only by the broadest definition of the term, as one uses it when speaking of Dantes The Divine Comedy (c. 1320). Like Dante, whose great poem begins with the otherwise unremarkable discovery that he has lost his way, Yeats uses a rather commonplace incident—a public officials visit to a classroom while touring a school—to explore the larger meaning and purpose of human life in general. Because of the complexity of Yeats technique, making such connections is not as farfetched as one might suspect.
A symbol, like the allusion to outside texts and sources of information, can point in any number of directions, but it will always make a connection. The poet must connect private and public symbols and allusions in a careful order and to some greater thematic purpose. Yeats use of the myth of Leda and the swan offers a fine example. In the ancient Greek myth, Zeus came as a swan to rape the mortal Leda; from that union came Helen of Troy. Yeats Ledaean body, however, is something more than a knowledge of the myth alone can betoken.
In his poem Leda and the Swan, he sees in the myth a comment on the dangerous consequences of mixing divine elements with something as fragile as human nature. Furthermore, in other poems, Yeats identifies Maud Gonne with Helen of Troy as representatives of that beauty which is destructive. That Leda also brings to mind childbearing and childrearing in a poem that focuses on children, childhood, labor, and birth suggests still further possibilities of meaning and illustrates that the apparent opacity of the poem is actually the result of combining a wide literary heritage with a compelling richness and nterconnectedness of thought, feeling, and experience.
Themes and Meanings The central themes of Among School Children are best exemplified in the central action: A sixty-year-old official is visiting with elementary school children. The age-old poetic themes of innocence versus experience, naivete versus wisdom, and youth versus age permeate every stanza of the poem. Yeats, who in his youthful work frequently dealt with incidents of passing and loss, virtually became obsessed with those themes as he became older and faced his own mortality in more real, less abstract terms.
By this point in his career, Yeats was examining the consequences and effects of times passage not only on the human body but also on the human spirit—both for the individual and for the race as a whole—invariably basing his meditations on personal experience. In Yeats hands, these timeless themes take on a profound significance, because while he views human life as tragic, his vision is not nihilistic. He never does actually enunciate what purpose human life may serve, but he does believe that there is a purpose.
Among School Children illustrates how the individual might frustrate that purpose by imagining either that he is the master of his own destiny or that there is no such thing as destiny. Maud Gonne serves as a prime example of this frustration of purpose. The poet, who is condemned to remember the brightness and promise of her youth, must live with the meaningless fruits of her actions now that the heartbreak and frustrations of her commitment to revolutionary Irish political causes have taken their toll both on herself and others.
By cutting her fulfillment short, she has cut all the rest of humankind short. Nor will Yeats exclude himself and others from the same condemnation. All fail in their choices and actions to face squarely the one insurmountable reality: Flesh ages, spirits flag, and human dreams wither. He thus accuses himself of having given up or given in (I … had pretty plumage once but now am a comfortable kind of old scarecrow) and accuses nuns and mothers, as much as the Helens and Mauds of the world, of betraying the innocent, childlike spirit that fosters dreams and compels human choices.
People unwittingly create false images of what it is to be human, thereby creating false hopes and expectations. Yeats suggests that since there is no choice but to move forward, one should imagine the fullness of each moment as having an inextricable harmony with all others. Life is like a dance that does exist independent of a dancer but has no shape or form without the dancers.